What Water Teaches: Wissenschaft in the Age of Sea Level Rise

Simon Richter University of Pennsylvania
Abstract: Does the sense of urgency occasioned by global warming and sea level rise have the power to reshape the humanities? Insofar as sea level rise will affect thousands of institutions of education and culture in coastal cities, the answer is yes. Beyond physical inundation, however, it is important to recognize that the shaping powers of water relative to human history, culture, and knowledge provide us with an opportunity to imagine a submerged scholarship. We see models of such scholarship in the research of Theodor Schwenk and the Institute for Flow Sciences; in the marine sculptures of Jason DeCaires Taylor; and in the Dutch tradition of the waterschap (district water board). Humanity and the humanities will be transformed by sea level rise. A recognition of our amphibious nature, a self-effacing extension of hospitality to other species, a sensitivity to flow, and collaborative response to the urgency of global warming are among the things that water teaches.

In July 2015, climatologist James Hansen and a team of 16 climate scientists published an extensive study in the online journal Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry (Hansen 2015). The publication claimed that the climate models preferred by the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change left significant factors out of account, resulting in sea level rise predictions that were too conservative. Whereas the IPCC predicts sea level rise of approximately one meter by the end of the century, Hansen and his team "conclude that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous consensus estimates, resulting in sea level rise of at least 10 feet in as little as 50 years" (Holthaus 2015). In order to circulate the findings effectively in advance of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 and to challenge the political consensus that had formed around setting 2C as a safe limit for global warming, Hansen bypassed scientific protocol and published the study in a journal that dispensed with prepublication peer review, though still providing scientists, journalists, and the public an open forum for comments and critique. The article’s subtitle left no doubt about the message: "2C Global Warming is Dangerous." By flaunting the Ingelfinger Rule and pointedly seeking publicity for his research, Hansen violated the wall that normally separates science from advocacy (Marcus and Oransky 2015). This unprecedented breach of protocol was motivated by the urgency of global warming and climate change, which raises a question: does urgency—this particular urgency—have the power to reconfigure scholarship, not only in the sciences, but in the humanities as well?[1]

Does the urgency of global warming have a proper or improper place in the humanities? Can urgency be disciplined by our disciplines or does its lack of decorum threaten to undiscipline us?

Global warming, according to Timothy Morton, is a "hyperobject." Hyperobjects are "massively distributed in time and space relative to humans" and, as such, incommensurable to our organs of perception and thought in numerous and contradictory ways (Morton 2013, 1). In Morton’s terms, hyperobjects are viscous, nonlocal, temporally undulating, in and out of phase. Although all of these aspects are relevant, it is the unique temporality of hyperobjects that helps us understand the urgency to which Hansen is responding. We are dealing with compacted time—ice, measured in units of SLE (sea level equivalent—essentially or eventually both a spatial and a temporal measure), accumulated over hundreds of thousands of years, of nonperspicuous proportions—a vast reserve of watery devastation no longer in abeyance. Through processes already set in motion—our "commitments" from carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases—a predictable range of sea level rise within the short to medium term (a lifetime or two) is inevitable. It will fundamentally alter our landscape. Over time, as Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says, "the magnitude of sea-level rise could get so big that we have to evacuate New York, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hamburg, and most of the Netherlands" (Gertner 2015). Two meters of sea level rise—within the range of our existing commitment by Hansen’s calculation—would displace upwards of 200 million people and result in waves—no—torrents of climate refugees. Further commitments may be hindered, but only through radical curtailment and renunciation of fossil fuel use, reduction of methane release, and reforestation. Regardless of whether humans eventually contend with 7 meters of sea level rise or, against the odds, succeed in staving off additional and unfathomable devastation—the species will have been subject to forces and involved as participants in events that will result in radical cultural change. In other words, our urgency stands in incommensurable but pressing relation to temporalities that stretch from remote pasts to dystopic futures.

It is against this background that I ask the following question: Does the urgency of global warming have a proper or improper place in the humanities? Can urgency be disciplined by our disciplines or does its lack of decorum threaten to undiscipline us? Already prospectively submerged within the zone of our carbon commitment are thousands of institutions of learning and monuments of cultural heritage, not to mention the necessary conditions for education to take place at all. Knowledge and its institutions are our landscape. Does sea level rise threaten to inundate learning? A short philological digression will show that it does.

In other words, our urgency stands in incommensurable but pressing relation to temporalities that stretch from remote pasts to dystopic futures.

The word landscape is obviously cognate with the German word Landschaft. Both are formed on a suffix that can be traced to the Proto-Germanic word *skapjaną, meaning to shape or make. Landscape denotes the way terrain has been shaped by geological and biophysical forces, including not only the anthropogenic contribution recently recognized, but also the restless physical logic of water and the other elements. By the same token, with the German word Wissenschaft, for which there is no precise English cognate, it is the shape of knowledge that is denoted. Knowledge, like land, has been shaped and has a shape. We proceed on the assumption that we shape knowledge and give shape to our disciplines, and certainly our combined and individual forces over time must be counted, but on reflection we must concede that larger historical and environmental forces have shaped and continue to shape our academic landscape.

Consideration of the environment with respect to the humanities began in the 1970s in the form of ecocriticism, dispersed rivulets of discourse that attracted little mainstream attention. Within the past decade, as the effects of global warming have become more evident, ecocriticism has flooded its banks and taken in more territory in the form of environmental humanities (EH). The memberships of national and international associations, such as the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), have swelled, as have publishing lists devoted to the field. EH finds allies and parallel efforts in other disciplines and subdisciplines (e.g., environmental history) and interdisciplines (e.g., environmental studies and sustainability studies). Since urgency can be a pretext for shoddy thinking, it took some time and overcoming of scruple before high theory waded in. Tom Cohen, who together with Henry Sussman codirects the Institute for Critical Climate Change (IC3), is a particularly trenchant critic of contemporary thought’s failure to take climate change into rigorous account. Writing from a perspective that I would call "posturgent," Cohen derives critical force from the implied posthumanist temporality of the Anthropocene, "which positions the category of an era of the ‘anthropos,’ however defined, as one of ecocide, mass extinction events, auto-extinction. It requires a different reader that is not of the ‘anthropos.’" What annoys the IC3 theorists as they survey a Wissenschaft reshaped by urgency, however, is, as Cohen writes, the fact that "the contemporary trends of today’s theory ‘after theory’ often circle back to pre-critical premises. And they share a curious trait […]. Without disjuncture, the ‘new’ model of networks and holistic circuitry that binds humanity and effortlessly traverses otherness and inter-species communications is the oddest replica of the previous organicisms whose suspension was the beginning of ‘theory’ as such" (Cohen 2012b, 26).

The levees and floodwalls of twentieth-century high theory are collapsing. It is difficult to decide whether this calls for the mountaintop Lucretianism of Robert Markley, who disparages the governmental rhetoric of sustainability and coolly surveys the commitments of our future— "When climate changes, people kill each other with greater frequency, population centers are abandoned, and centers of calculation do not hold. Systemic climatic change is no more characteristic of Gaia than the long summer of climatic calm that has existed for the last ten thousand years, unpredictable oscillations no less ‘natural’ than ideals of sustainability" (Markley 2012, 60)—or whether a sense of residual, if futile urgency is in place. For J. Hillis Miller, senior member of the Institute, global warming and American failures to respond adequately constitute nothing less than "our present state of emergency" (Miller 2012, 69). His recourse to Schmittian language seems to leave open the possibility of dictatorial intervention. "If you just stand back a little […], it is easy to see the rational solutions" (Miller 2012, 95). But other, more potent impulses will preclude even such drastic solutions: "Apparently we will remain blindly bent on self-destruction" (Miller 2012, 95).

Under the regime of sea level rise and the collapse of financial and social systems, universities will struggle to remain afloat and in many cases will not. It is time not only to imagine, but to begin to navigate a new amphibious terrain, the terrain of submerged scholarship.

Regardless of their differences, Cohen and Miller remain united in their irritation at the inappropriate resurgence of what they call "organicist" thinking. "The Earth," writes Miller, "is not a super-organism. It is not an organism at all. It is best understood as an extremely complex machine that is capable of going auto-destructively berserk, at least from the limited perspective of human needs." Miller is convinced that his inorganic, ecotechnological model of the machine is a better paradigm "than the organic model for sketching out what is happening as the water rises around us," even though use of his model "will not keep what is occurring from occurring" (Miller 2012, 99). Global warming "will flood our low-lying islands, our coastal plains and whatever towns, cities, and houses are on them. An example is our house on the shore of Deer Isle, Maine, where I am writing this, in sight of the ocean, only fifty feet away, its surface only a few feet down, at high tide, from the ground level of our house" (Miller 2012, 89). Recalling Miller’s longstanding and productive preoccupation with Ovid’s Metamorphoses as well as his Derridean reflections on hospitality and the role of the host, I see the octogenarian Miller and his wife, Dorothea (whose name he etymologizes in the essay as his "gift of the gods"; Miller 2012, 74), coastal residents of Deer Isle, Maine, as a cranky Philemon and Baucis, their hospitality all but exhausted, consumed by care, surveying the Faustian wreckage with which they too were always already complicit, and affirming that there is no metamorphosis in store for them. An image of posturgent urgency.

Like Miller, we will not be able to avoid wet feet. Water is seeping into our institutions and carefully guarded disciplines, transforming the landscape of knowledge, the Wissenschaft on which we rely for our livelihoods and our lives. Even at higher elevations, our universities are not waterproof. If it is not waves directly, it will be waves of education refugees (remember Katrina and the displaced students and instructional staff of Tulane and other universities). Under the regime of sea level rise and the collapse of financial and social systems, universities will struggle to remain afloat and in many cases will not. It is time not only to imagine, but to begin to navigate a new amphibious terrain, the terrain of submerged scholarship. What does Wissenschaft in the age of sea level rise look like?

Water is our new medium. But it is, of course, at the same time the oldest medium, the medium of our corporeal existence. Perhaps you remember Thales’s speech in the Classical Walpurgis Night in Goethe’s Faust, delivered moments before Homonculus’s ecstatic plunge into the sea:

In water all things began to thrive!!
By water all things are kept alive!
Grant us your bounty forever, great ocean:
Send us clouds, for if you did not,
Abundant streams, for if you did not,
And rivers in meandering motion,
And great waterways—for if you did not,
Where would the mountains, the plains, and the world be then?
By you fresh life lives and is sustained again. (Goethe 2008, 122)

The written record of the humanities begins in the water as well. The clay for the tablets that still convey details from the Atrahasis flood story in cuneiform was scooped up from the riverbed of the Tigris river. Through a ploy, the god Enki instructed Atrahasis to build the ark. Atrahasis, or Utnapishtim as he is called in the Gilgamesh, invited friends and family to a banquet. That is when the storm began. "He sent his family on board; they ate and they drank; but he himself kept going in and out, he could neither sit nor squat, because his heart was broken and he was spewing bile." When the deluge is all over and Enki is accused of breaking an oath with the other gods, his answer, like Hansen’s, is direct: "I did it […] to preserve life."[2] Urgency and response.

One of the flood tablets is in the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, curated by the current Clark Research Professor of Assyriology at the University of Pennsylvania, Stephen Tinney. On Tinney’s reading, the Gilgamesh tradition, including Atrahasis and Adapa, the first of the seven Mesopotamian sages, is about preserving knowledge (Tinney 2014). Gilgamesh’s fame rested not on his ill-advised exploits, but on his retrieving knowledge from the time before the flood by crossing the sea of death to speak to Utnapishtim. More important still is the origin of that knowledge. In the account of Berossus, Adapa is a fishman, an antediluvian ichtyform being, who lives in the Gulf, and emerges from the water to provide humanity with knowledge.[3] It is this precious knowledge—what water taught men—that in postdiluvian times has been only remotely and fragmentarily available to man, or not at all.

Water is seeping into our institutions and carefully guarded disciplines, transforming the landscape of knowledge, the Wissenschaft on which we rely for our livelihoods and our lives.

Is there knowledge in water? Is there a Wasserwissenschaft that is differently shaped or shapes differently than the terraform Wissenschaft we are struggling to shore up against sea level rise and global warming? One candidate might be the Goethe-inspired research of Theodor Schwenk and the Institut für Strömungswissenschaft (Institute for Flow Sciences) in the Black Forest of Germany. Through the development of refined observational procedures, Schwenk and his colleagues are able to discern the "archetypal movements of water" (Schwenk 1976, 13). All of these movements are conditioned by the interplay between water’s innate tendency to spherical form (as in a dewdrop) and the pull of gravity. The meandering of a river can be understood as a version of the dialectic of the sphere and the compulsions of gravity. Within the river’s meanderings, dynamic flows create circular cross-sectional flows that accentuate curves, deposit sediment, and continually resculpt the earth the river traverses. Another form is the wave, either in motion across a body of water and onto a shore, or a stationary wave through which water passes. A branch or bridge support that interrupts flow has the effect of drawing out the spherical tendency of water in the form of a vortex or trail of rhythmically defined vortices. Whether one examines water’s flows microscopically or globally in the form of currents (such as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation that Hansen predicts will collapse this century) or large hydrological cycles involving trees and large rippling movements of water-saturated air, Schwenk’s point is that water is the "most suitable medium for the form-creating process, which would be impossible in the three-dimensional world of solids where there is only exclusiveness and no interpenetration. […] The fluid element is […] the ideal bearer of movements, by which it allows itself to be molded and plasticized" (Schwenk 1976, 34). Form originates in liquid motion. It is not necessary to mention that up to 70 percent of the human body is made up of water. Those streams of hundreds of thousands of Syrian climate refugees seeking an opening through the hastily erected walls along the Hungarian border really are streams! The traces of formative liquid motion are evident in the swirl of muscles and the torque of a bone or the curving paths evident in spongy bone structure. Water is form before substance. Human cultural history can be understood as an extension of form-generating flow, as Manuel de Landa, leaning on Deleuze, argues: "Our individual bodies and minds are mere coagulations or decelerations in the flows of biomass, genes, memes, and norms. […] Over the millennia, it is the flow of biomass through food webs, as well as the flow of genes through generations, that matters, not the bodies and species that emerge from these flows. […] A similar point applies to our institutions, which may also be considered transitory hardenings in the flows of money, routines and prestige, and, if they have acquired a permanent building to house them, in the mineral flows from which the construction materials derive" (de Landa 2014, 258–59). However slow the flow may be, however cast in stone, water never stops moving.

Many of humanity’s "transitory hardenings" are already committed to inundation. The trope of Venice is on its way to becoming part of the new normal. As such, they may become sites for submerged scholarship, new underwater museums that will fall under the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. The novelty of the challenges submerged urban culture poses will call for innovative approaches and may produce new forms of knowledge and interdisciplinary partnership. Perhaps we can already discern some of these in the underwater sculpture of Jason Decaires Taylor, whose creative work involves oceanography, scuba diving, marine biology, ecology, and eco/art-tourism.

Taylor constructs life-casts of members of local populations in porous, "pH-neutral, marine-grade cement, free from any other substances […] that could be harmful to marine life" (Scales 2014, 25). The strategic underwater placement of the sculpture ensembles in the vicinity of existing coral reefs is timed so that the sculptures extend hospitality to the flows of teeming larval life. In time, the sculptures and their new coproductive denizens become coral reefs in their own right and perform the salutary task of distracting underwater tourism away from vulnerable areas. In ensembles such as "Vicissitudes" off the coast of Grenada or "The Silent Evolution" near the Manchones Reef in Mexico, we encounter representations of ourselves in an unfamiliar medium.[4] Although thoughts of catastrophe and extinction may not be far off, we cannot help but see that the face and body of humanity are in the process of being eerily and exuberantly transformed. Hillis Miller recognized prosopopoeia as "the fundamental generative linguistic act" (Miller 1990, 13) at work in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and in storytelling in general, that is, "the ascription of a face, a name, or a voice to the absent, the inanimate, or the dead" (Miller 1990, 4), and attempted to work out an ethics of narration based on that critical recognition. Prosopopoeia is a necessary and unavoidable error—like organicist thinking, putting a face to the machine—for which theory is no compensation. Likewise, Tom Cohen continues to take thinkers such as Judith Butler and even the later Jacques Derrida to task for engaging "Levinas and the topos of face" (Cohen 2012a, 21).[5] Against these principled theoretical objections, Taylor’s sculptures become visible as sites for dynamic processes of productive human effacement. We scarcely recognize ourselves. We have become uncannily beautiful. These sculptures are the ancestors of Philemon and Baucis. They are embodied hospitality, the marine equivalent of the ancient pair’s metamorphosis into linden trees.

In responding to the urgency of global warming, I will practice submerged scholarship. There are no methods, no prescribed roads to travel in Wasserwissenschaft. Instead, there are the movements and rhythms of water.

In responding to the urgency of global warming, I will practice submerged scholarship. There are no methods, no prescribed roads to travel in Wasserwissenschaft. Instead, there are the movements and rhythms of water. I am going to hang with hydrologists and oceanographers with user names like "sediment" and "erosion"; with the architects and residents of amphibious architecture and urban design in delta cities like Rotterdam; with the readers and curators of cuneiform and other artifacts of early settlement, water, and the transmission of knowledge; with lawyers and climatologists spearheading climate change litigation; with the Dutch engineers and policy makers of such projects as Ruimte voor de Rivier (Room for the River); and with artists like Jason Decaires Taylor. I will support student mobilizations for divestment and sustainability and urge colleagues to do the same. In short, I will make myself as useful as I can. I will move with the flows and eddies and turbulence of our time and participate in the reshaping of our disciplines. I will take students with me whenever I can.

There is an important institution in the Netherlands known as the Waterschap (Kuks 2009). Non-Dutch speakers may think of the paintings of Jacob van Ruisdael and surmise that waterschap is the wetland or marine counterpart to the word landschap. But it isn’t. The waterschap (cumbersomely translated as district water authority) is one of the oldest institutions of Dutch society, dating back to the thirteenth century. In a country where 26% of its territory, much of it man-made, much of it densely populated, is below sea level, protected by a system of dikes, dunes, and storm surge barriers, and an additional 29% is susceptible to river flooding, an organized approach to living with water has been crucial for survival. Global warming is intensifying the conditions the Dutch have long contended with; the longstanding reality of flooding, storm surges, and river flooding is exacerbated by sea level rise, extreme weather, and creeping salinization of groundwater. Each waterschap is responsible for managing its water barriers, water levels, water quality, and sewage treatment in a discrete region defined by water flow. Each waterschap consists of elected and some appointed members who represent all stakeholders in a broad, integrated, long-term sense. As such, the waterschap is an assemblage of complex and dynamically counterpoised interests whose vigilance and collaborative actions are guided by an abiding practical sense of urgency, a model of water-shaped governance and habitation. The waterschap is, I would argue, a model for Wissenschaft in the age of sea level rise. That is just one of the things that water teaches.


  1. A month before the publication of Hansen’s article, a court in the Netherlands found that the Dutch government was not "sufficiently ambitious" in its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A crucial component of the case was the court’s conferral of legal status on the IPCC’s assessment of the state of climate change. The court’s ruling was unprecedented and attracted worldwide attention. The name of the NGO that brought the case against the government is Urgenda, an elision of the words urgent and agenda. Roger Cox, the lead lawyer in the case, affirmed that urgency was a factor in the judges’ decision. Evidently, urgency has legal weight. Urgency also creates partnerships across disciplines. Hansen advises Cox on climate science. Cox and Hansen are partners of Our Children’s Trust, an organization that has brought cases like Urgenda’s against the federal and state governments in the United States. For an analysis of the case, see van Zeben (2015).
  2. Quotes are from tablet 3 of the Atrakhasis epic. They can be found on a site curated by Brian Edric Collis. Accessed January 14, 2016. https://sites.google.com/site/collesseum/atrakhasis,
  3. "At Babylon there was (in these times) a great resort of people of various nations, who inhabited Chaldæa, and lived in a lawless manner like the beasts of the field. In the first year there appeared, from that part of the Erythræan sea which borders upon Babylonia, an animal destitute of reason, by name Oannes, whose whole body (according to the account of Apollodorus) was that of a fish; that under the fish’s head he had another head, with feet also below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish’s tail. His voice too, and language, was articulate and human; and a representation of him is preserved even to this day. This Being was accustomed to pass the day among men; but took no food at that season; and he gave them an insight into letters and sciences, and arts of every kind. He taught them to construct cities, to found temples, to compile laws, and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and shewed them how to collect the fruits; in short, he instructed them in every thing which could tend to soften manners and humanize their lives. From that time, nothing material has been added by way of improvement to his instructions. And when the sun had set, this Being Oannes, retired again into the sea, and passed the night in the deep; for he was amphibious" (Polyhistor 1832).
  4. A selection of Taylor’s works, including "Vicissitudes" and "The Silent Evolution," is accessible at http://www.underwatersculpture.com/.
  5. In a 2012 interview, Cohen is scathing in his critique of Derrida’s "pretending to adapt Levinas’ ‘other,’" as he is of Derrida’s "hospitality" riffs (Cohen 2012a).


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